WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS - Johnson Wagner has found paradise this week.The former Virginia Tech standout turned in one of his best rounds of the year, shooting an 8-under 62 to tie for Thursday's opening-round lead at the Greenbrier Classic."I've always loved Old White,'' said Wagner. "I went to Virginia Tech and we would come over, I think maybe two or three times, when I was in school."I'm really a big fan of Seth Raynor and C.B. Macdonald designed golf courses, and this is just kind of my paradise, playing a tournament on his course. I really enjoy playing classically designed golf courses.''
It showed Thursday as the 6-foot-3, 230-pound Wagner tore up the 99-year-old Old White TPC with six birdies, one eagle and, more importantly, no bogeys. The eagle occurred on No. 12, a 568-yard par 5.The Amarillo, Texas, native turned in three straight birdies on holes 3, 4 and 5 and finished the front nine at 5-under 29."My first competitive 29 on the PGA Tour,'' beamed Wagner, who has ditched his trademark mustache."Then the 59 thought started creeping in. I blocked it out for a few more holes and birdied 11, chipped in for eagle on 12, and then the 59 thoughts really got in my mind. But I managed to hit really quality shots and quality putts coming in. I've been disappointed with 72s and 79s the last month, so I'm very happy to be disappointed with a 62.''Wagner has struggled this year, making only six cuts in 18 tournaments."I've struggled with my ball striking all year,'' said Wagner. "Even my good finishes, which there were maybe two at Kapalua and Harbortown, which was the last cut I made, my ball striking's been terrible."After Hartford a couple of weeks ago, my coach watched me play. We hadn't been working all that much together this year. He said come down and get it straight. We got into a position after three or four days where I kind of felt like I did leading into the Sony Open last year and Kapalua last year, where I played the best golf of my life. Confidence for me can turn around real quickly.''And the mustache?"It will definitely come back at some point,'' Wagner said. "I love irritating my wife too much with it to let it go for too long. We just celebrated our seventh anniversary on Monday and I didn't get her a gift, so I thought surprising her with a clean lip would suffice.''nn
While most of the professional golfers were getting their winks Wednesday night before the Classic's opening round, Pat Carter was on the road in spite of a 9 a.m. tee time.
The 13-time West Virginia Amateur champion drove to Barboursville on Wednesday evening to watch his son pitch in the 11-12-year-old age group of the district all-stars."I knew he was going to be pitching to get us to the district championship and he's having such a good year in Little League,'' said Carter."I would have gone home every time. I was hoping to have a late tee time and get a little more sleep, but that was OK. I wasn't tired at all. Mark it down. We're heading for the state championship.''nn
Wagner isn't the only Hokie near the top of Thursday's leaderboard.His Virginia Tech teammate, Brendon de Jonge, shot a 4-under 66 and is tied for ninth. De Jonge finished third in 2010 and tied for fourth in 2011 at the Classic.
"It's great,'' said Wagner. "For years I've wanted to be paired with him Saturday and Sunday when it mattered."We've been close a couple times, but it would be cool for us to be fighting it out coming down the stretch. He's had an amazing last four or five years and he's certainly overdue for a win, and I would love to take it away from him.''nn
Tom Watson and Kenny Perry carried the torch for the 50-and-over crowd.The 63-year-old Watson, the pro emeritus at The Greenbrier, and the 52-year-old Perry, who won last weekend's Senior Players Championship, a major on the Champions Tour, carded 2-under 68s and six just six strokes off the lead. Watson collected three birdies, one bogey and 14 pars while Perry, who is from Kentucky, had five birdies but gave back three bogeys against 10 pars."My game today was good,'' said Watson, who is also the 2014 Ryder Cup captain. "I drove the ball well, kept the ball in play off the tee and hit some quality iron shots."I had a lot of opportunities with the putter that I didn't convert. I left some strokes out there. It could have been a better round. The course was there for the taking. We hadn't seen the greens this soft since they've been changed. The course held up well.''Ryan Palmer, along with caddie Sean Payton, the New Orleans Saints coach, was also part of Watson's grouping."It was cool playing with Tom Watson,'' said Palmer, who also shot a 2 under. "He's a legend. I had lunch with him Monday and picked his brain for half an hour, kind of what he did through his career, so it was pretty special to get to play with him."Watson was asked what it would mean to make the cut at the Classic, and it was evident his competitive juices are still flowing."How about winning the tournament?,'' he smiled.nn
The Classic dodged most of the raindrops Thursday and play was never halted.The forecast for today in the Greenbrier Valley calls for a 62-percent chance of thunderstorms with a high of 81 degrees.On Saturday, there's a 60-percent chance of afternoon thunderstorms with a high of 81 and Sunday only a 40-percent chance of a thundershower in the afternoon with a high of 78.BrieflyA pair of tournaments were probably shot by 8 a.m. Thursday, those of John Daly and Jason Gore. Both suffered "snowman" eights, Daly on the par-4 second and Gore on the par-4 12th.
Off-target drives started the trouble - Gore went out of bounds and Daly found the creek, both on the right side. Gore finished with a 73, Daly a 75.After good compliance with the Tour's cellphone policy last year, fans in the Bubba Watson/Phil Mickelson/Ted Potter Jr. trio stepped over the line several times. In one incident on the 13th green, a marshal whispered to a young lady, "Please never do that again," after her camera clicked.By the numbers: Eleven players had bogey-free rounds, and the stroke average was 70.096. ... The last time two players opened with 62 was the McGladrey Classic in Georgia last fall. ... The longest drive of the day was 356 yards, by Kyle Stanley on the fourth hole. Alas, he shot a 77 and sits tied for last place.And finally, one of the best comments out of the gallery comes from a young lady straining to get a good vantage point: "There are too many fat men out here."Doug Smock contributed to this story.